Mike Berkofsky's best photograph: Jimi Hendrix

'You could smell him 30 seconds before you could see him – the patchouli was so strong'

It was 1967, and I was just starting out as a photographer. My father-in-law was trying to get me to drive a taxi because I hadn't made any money for a long time. Then I got a call from the editor at Rave magazine, who said: "There's this new guy called Jimi Hendrix – he's got a record out called Hey Joe. Can you photograph him this afternoon?" I'd heard him on the radio that day, but I hadn't listened to the whole record. I really wasn't prepared.

When he arrived at the studio, you could smell him 30 seconds before you could see him – the patchouli he wore was so strong. He looked incredible in his red velvet jacket, but I could see he was shy and he could see I was shy. I was only 22 and he was 24. I asked him where his guitar was, but he hadn't brought one. People always ask me if he was stoned, but he seemed perfectly straight. He had a lot of acne, but he didn't have dark bags under his eyes, which surprises some people. I remember he did this pose at the start of the shoot to show off his ring. He'd just bought it and was thrilled with it, so I got him to hold his hands up.

It was only my second ever magazine shoot, and I had just 20 minutes before the interview was due to start. Luckily, I'd already set up the lighting. I added the red backlight because his afro was merging into the blue background. It was a total fluke that I used red: it could have been any colour. And it made the shot. Of course, I worried I'd overdone it afterwards, but you've got to go with your gut.

I took the shoot to Rave magazine, and they ringed a few transparencies they liked. I asked for my rolls back, but they said they'd return them when they were finished. That was the biggest mistake I ever made. They never gave me back the film. The only reason I have this image is because I happened to do one transparency first as a test, to check the exposure was right for the rest of the shots.

Recently, I found out there was a flood in the basement where Rave kept its picture archive. Everything, including early photographs of the Beatles and the Stones, got eaten by rats. All that remains is this one picture of Jimi. I lost track of the slide for a while, when I was moving back and forth between LA and Europe for work. But a few years ago, I got a call from my old assistant saying he had a box of my pictures. He wondered if he should throw them out because they'd been in his garage and were sodden. But in one of the plastic files I found my picture of Jimi, covered in fungus and bleached out.

It took three years to properly restore it – scanning it, fixing tiny bits, then finally turning it back into film. I worked on the contrast and the colour, and even had to graft a bit of "skin" on to his cheekbone where it got stuck on the plastic file. But there's no airbrushing. That would be sacrilege.

CV

Born: London, 1944.

Studied: Worked in darkrooms for six years from the age of 16, then went straight into photography.

Influences: Tony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon), Terence Donovan.

High point: "Finding this Hendrix image after losing it in the 70s."

Low point: "Teaching in America with tenured college teachers who never worked professionally. They would have done anything to get rid of me."

Top tip: "Become an apprentice to your favorite photographer."

Contributor

Interview by Karin Andreasson

The GuardianTramp

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